In 1951, Nepal was still largely a mystery to the world. Other than the occasional mountaineering expedition or diplomatic mission, life in the kingdom – with all its complex politics and court intrigues as King Tribhuvan manoeuvred to wrest power from the Rana autocracy – continued behind closed borders. And so it might have continued for quite a while longer, had it not been for a royal visit to Calcutta when King Tribhuvan, impressed with the famed 300 Club where he was a regular guest, invited the club’s owner to his son Mahendra’s wedding. The owner, Boris Lissanevitch, gladly accepted and in 1951 visited Nepal for the first time. Boris was captivated by what he saw, and would spend the rest of his eventful life in Nepal, working to open the country to tourism and thus leaving an indelible mark on how the world saw the Himalayan country – and how Nepal came to see itself. Besides bringing tourism to Nepal, though, Boris would also leave another legacy in his adopted homeland, becoming the pioneer of a seemingly improbable Russian diaspora that still exists in Nepal today.
This certainly is not the kind of thing that first comes to the Southasian mind when thinking of diaspora. In today’s age of globalised migration and increasingly acrid immigration politics, Southasians are justifiably focused on the fortunes of their own compatriots abroad, especially so as our countries’ political and economic fortunes continue to lead many of us to look beyond our own borders. The history of Southasian diasporas predates even the Subcontinent’s current configuration of national borders; but more recently our diasporas have swelled in number, spreading across the globe to an unprecedented degree. As extensive as our own diasporic history might be, we should remember that we have played host to foreign diasporas for as long as we ourselves have been migrants. And just as we advocate fair treatment of our fellows in foreign lands, we must also be mindful of how we receive those foreigners who, even if in small numbers, have come to build their lives in our countries. The story of the Russian diaspora in Nepal is just one example of the diasporas we often forget exist within our own societies.
|Santa Dai: Nepali-Russian children celebrating Christmas at the Russian Cultural Centre, mid-1990s|
The Russian-Nepali community is proof that, regardless of distance and difficulty, even the smallest of diasporas can preserve their unique identity, culture and language. Russia is certainly not a small country, but the number of Russian immigrants to Nepal was always miniscule. In the decades of the pre-Internet age, separated from their homeland by the Iron Curtain, the first Russians coming to Nepal faced tremendous difficulties in maintaining their ties to home. Still, these Russians formed a tight-knit community to support one another, help to preserve their own identity, and to pass their language and customs on to their children. Theirs is a story of successful adaptation without assimilation; and as our diasporas confront similar challenges of preserving cultural identity while learning to live and work in foreign societies, we would do well to learn from their example.
Boris and beyond
Boris Lissanevitch was a forceful personality, and his glowing 1966 biography, Tiger for Breakfast, continues to feature prominently in bookshops in Kathmandu’s tourist district. This is understandable, given that no traveller with even the slightest pretence to audacity could fail to find inspiration in this intrepid man. Boris escaped from Soviet Russia in 1924, aged just 19, and went on to tour the world for a decade as part of a ballet troupe before settling down in Calcutta. There, he opened Club 300, which soon began to attract the highest echelons of the British Raj in India. In 1954, at King Tribhuvan’s behest, Boris opened the Royal Hotel, soon followed by a restaurant named The Chimney (later to grow to become the renowned Yak and Yeti hotel) where Boris began hobnobbing with Nepali high society and laying on lavish feasts for the king.
Boris kept illustrious company. He hunted tigers with Queen Elizabeth II and, meeting privately with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, sparked rumours that he was King Tribhuvan’s instrumental emissary during the overthrow of the Rana regime. In 1955, Boris convinced the new king, Mahendra, to grant the country’s first tourist visas to a group of 20 visitors. Boris did not exactly open the floodgates, but from then on he received a fairly steady flow of visitors at his hotel, paving the way for the tourism boom of the coming decades that led Nepal to redefine itself, abandoning its insularity in favour of an open welcome to overseas visitors.
Even as the first member of the Russian diaspora in Nepal, Boris had played his part in transforming the country. Of course, not all Russians who found their way to Nepal got there via paths quite as astounding as those he trod. Having established himself in Kathmandu, Boris busied himself with his business and was not heavily involved with the Russian expatriates who began trickling into Nepal at the close of the 1960s. It took an unusual combination of circumstances to bring this next group of Russian émigrés to the Himalayan kingdom. By the 1960s, some of Nepal’s brightest students were accepting Soviet scholarships to pursue their university education in the USSR. Such scholarships were offered to numerous third-world countries, including those of Southasia – though such generosity, at the height of the Cold War, came with clear political undertones.
Delicate politics between the Non-Aligned Movement and the USSR meant that the Soviet government came to promote such scholarships more as vehicles for gaining goodwill, rather than exercises in outright indoctrination. Still, that does not diminish the obvious irony of the Nepali case, where a communist government was extending the hand of friendship and cooperation to a monarchical Hindu regime. Irony aside, Nepal gladly sent students, almost all of them men, to the Soviet Union, often for extensive periods of study. During the many years these Nepalis spent abroad, many met and married Russians, often starting families while still students. As per Soviet rules, though, upon completing their education all foreign students returned home. So it was that, starting in the late 1960s, Nepali men began returning home, bringing their Russian wives with them.
That trend continued, bringing more Russian women to Nepal, as the number of Nepali students on scholarships at Soviet universities continued to rise through the 1970s and 1980s. The first Russian woman to settle in Nepal, Elena Upreti, arrived in 1968, soon followed by other Russian wives who brought the number up to 13 by 1978. Of course, not all those who came would stay, with some families choosing to emigrate elsewhere. Some women, unwilling to remain in Nepal and with Soviet rules barring their husbands from moving back to the USSR, left their husbands to return home. Still, other families kept coming to Nepal, and by the 1990s there were 24 families of Nepalis with Russian spouses settled in Nepal, the vast majority in Kathmandu. As more Nepalis returned home in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, that number would swell, reaching 58 at its peak in the early 2000s. Today, with immigration drawing increasing numbers of educated Nepalis abroad, many of the younger families have left, currently leaving roughly 25 Russian women settled in Kathmandu.
Describing this diaspora as one of ‘Russian’ women is perhaps a bit misleading. These women come from many of the varied ethnicities that constituted the USSR, and many of the new members of this community have hailed from the former Soviet republics. Despite those differences, however, having all grown up in the Soviet Union, they all share the Russian language and, to a large degree, a common culture. Nor is the diaspora exclusively female, though the number of Nepali women who studied in the USSR, and especially those among them who married Russian men while there, has always been minimal. Today, this diaspora survives and retains its strong and unique sense of identity, though with the number of Nepalis studying in ex-Soviet countries having slowed to a trickle, it currently receives few new members.
|Father in the mother's land: The author’s dad in Kiev|
The melancholy willow
Moving from the USSR to Nepal in the 1970s and 1980s presented a major cultural shock to the arriving ladies. Behind the Iron Curtain, strict restrictions on travel outside the USSR and a blackout of foreign media meant that the average person knew very little about the outside world. The populace was left to rely on scraps of information, often with no way of making sense of the little news they did receive. In one striking example, a travel documentary aired on Russian state television during this period mentioned the practice of polyandry in a Nepali village; in response it prompted, in at least one case, a panicked phone call from the mother of a Russian woman recently engaged to a Nepali man demanding to know how many brothers he had. Such ignorance was compounded by an education system intent on teaching students that the Soviet Union represented the pinnacle of human civilisation and social organisation: the Soviet way was the right way, and everyone else was expected to aspire to it. Nepal, at the time under a conservative monarchy and only recently opened to foreigners, was a stark contrast to the Soviet ideal, and so presented an inevitable shock.
When Russian women arrived, they struggled to accept habits that were second nature to any Nepali. ‘I had seen my husband and his friends sometimes eat with their hands while we were in the USSR, but I could not believe that the entire country did so all the time,’ said Irina Gautam, who first came to Kathmandu with her Nepali husband in 1986. ‘From my first day in kindergarten I had been taught to eat the ‘civilised’ way, using a knife and fork. If anyone reached for food with their bare hands they were scolded for eating ‘like pigs’.’ She continued, ‘Now suddenly I found myself in a country where everyone ate with their hands. I just didn’t know what to think.’
Cultural clashes became a part of everyday life, especially when confronting traditional Nepali views of a woman’s place in the household. Nepal also lacked many of the creature comforts that these women had grown accustomed to back in the Soviet Union. Running hot water and central heating were almost unheard of in Kathmandu at the time, and even simpler accoutrements such as curtains were not at all common. ‘It was hard at times, living under my father-in-law’s roof – I had many misunderstandings and arguments with the family,’ recalls Gautam. ‘Over time things settled down, and we managed to adapt and find acceptable compromises between my ways and theirs, but it took several years. Other Russian women faced similar issues. Some of us managed to solve these problems, but not everyone did. Learning Nepali, finding a job, living with your husband’s family – none of it was easy. Some of those who came just couldn’t find a way to be happy here, and so they left.’
Those who stayed quickly came to rely on each other for support, forming a small but tightly knit community. Far from their families and with communication both expensive and difficult, all they had of home was what they could keep alive among themselves. Initially meeting in each other’s homes to celebrate Russian holidays such as Easter and Christmas, as the community grew they felt the need to organise events on a larger scale. Among the women’s main concerns was ensuring that their children grew up with a sense of the Russian language and culture.
These needs soon gave rise to the Russian Culture Centre. Established in 1979, the centre built upon the earlier work of the Nepal-Soviet Friendship Society, and was funded and supported through the Soviet embassy in Kathmandu. Initially renting space in central Kathmandu, the centre had a library and organised regular film screenings, in addition to hosting holiday celebrations for the Russian community. Even as funding from the Soviet government dried up in the wake of the collapse of the USSR, in 2003 the centre moved to permanent premises, where it remains today. Its auditorium is one of the most important cultural venues in present-day Kathmandu.
The highlight on the centre’s calendar was always the annual New Year celebration, geared especially towards the community’s children who, for at least that one day, stepped outside their Nepali schools and homes to sing in Russian and eagerly await the appearance of Ded Moroz (Father Frost, the Russian equivalent of Santa Claus) and his daughter Snigurachka, with their bag full of presents. Today, many of those children say they continue to look back on those celebrations with particular fondness. With the first generation of Nepali-Russians having come of age, Kathmandu’s Russian women continue to keep these celebrations alive for a new generation of grandchildren in hopes that they too will retain their unusual cultural inheritance.
Beyond the cultural, in times of need the diaspora has also organised behind political aims. The Society of Russian Women in Nepal was formed in 1988 under the leadership of Alla Sharma, who, since she arrived in 1978, has been perhaps the diaspora’s most significant champion and organising force. This society petitioned the Soviet government to expand its support for the diaspora, primarily through increased funding for the cultural centre and greater cooperation from the Kathmandu embassy in resolving documentation issues. Tellingly, the society’s name – Ivushka – was the Russian name for the willow tree, a frequent symbol of melancholy and longing in Russian literature and poetry. This organisation ended with the fall of the USSR, but by the early 1990s, the community was once again organising, this time to join other foreigners living in Nepal to pressure Nepali courts to repeal new rules requiring monthly visa fees even for foreign spouses of Nepali nationals. In a victory for the diaspora, the courts ruled that past visa privileges could not be revoked, allowing those women who arrived before 1994 to continue living in Nepal on residential visas.
Through many challenges – cultural, legal and otherwise – the Russian diaspora continues to carve out a space for its own unique identity within Nepal. Even as they have become integrated members of Nepali society and contributing professionals in the Nepali economy, Russian migrants to Nepal have done remarkably well to preserve their own culture, and to forge a Russian-Nepali identity for the children who carry on their legacy. Such diaspora communities, both Russian and of other nationalities, exist across Southasia, many of them formed by foreign spouses of Southasian nationals. Though their small size has meant they receive little attention from society at large, their struggles and histories present valuable inspiration and lessons for preserving identity and ties to home in an increasingly and sometimes bafflingly globalised world. While we do well to concern ourselves with the Southasian diaspora outside our borders, we should remember not to turn away from the diasporas within.
~ Roman Gautam grew up in Kathmandu before leaving for the US to pursue his education, where he is currently a student. With special thanks to Alla Sharma and Irina Gautam.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
flickr / The US Army
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